One of the things I love about Kurt Vonnegut, and the reason I mention him in my writing talks, is his ability to create visual imagery in his writing.
I’ve been on a metaphors are better than similes kick lately — I’ll save that topic for another time — so I’ve been paying more attention to this in my reading. I saw an excerpt of a Kurt Vonnegut interview on a Paris Review blog post that reminded me of what makes him such an important writer.
In this particular segment, he’s talking about a 240 millimeter Howitzer he had done basic training on, the largest weapon in the US military at that time (WWII). The interviewer said, “It must have been a thrill to fire such a weapon.”
Not really. We would put the shell in there, and then we would throw in bags of very slow and patient explosives. They were damp dog biscuits, I think. We would close the breech, and then trip a hammer which hit a fulminate of mercury percussion cap, which spit fire at the damp dog biscuits. The main idea, I think, was to generate steam. After a while, we could hear these cooking sounds. It was a lot like cooking a turkey. In utter safety, I think, we could have opened the breechblock from time to time, and basted the shell. Eventually, though, the howitzer always got restless. And finally it would heave back on its recoil mechanism, and it would have to expectorate the shell. The shell would come floating out like the Goodyear blimp. If we had had a stepladder, we could have painted “Fuck Hitler” on the shell as it left the gun. Helicopters could have taken after it and shot it down.
What caught my eye about Vonnegut’s answer is the way he describes how slow and inefficient the firing system was. He didn’t just say “it was slow” or fire off some witty simile about molasses and icebergs. Instead he took 13 sentences — using 15 metaphors and 2 similes — to explain how slow the gun was.
- He referred to the “slow and patient explosives” as damp dog biscuits. That gives me an idea of the consistency and feel of the explosives, as well as their effectiveness. It also made me laugh, because I like the hard consonant sounds of the D’s, P’s, and K (in biscuit).
- He said the sound was like “cooking a turkey,” and then followed it up with imagery of “basted the shell.” The fact that he said they could have done that in utter safety also shows how slow the process was.
- The word “expectorate” means more than just “spit out.” It’s that thing old men do when they make that deep snk-k-k-k-k in the back of their throat and then spit. His term makes me think of old men retching up a gob of spit, which speaks to the thickness and fullness of what the gun was firing.
- The idea of the floating shell is reinforced by the idea of them painting the shell as it left the gun.
This is also how good stand-up comics work. They take a single idea, a single incident, or even a single conversation, and expand on it. Vonnegut took “the gun was slow to fire” and turned it into a 165 word epic description of just how slow the firing process actually was.
As bloggers and content marketers, you can use the same techniques to convey ideas in your own writing. Rather than a detailed, lengthy, and technically accurate description, try using metaphors and similes to make your writing more easily understood. And interesting.